Mike Leeper discovered pickleball when he got his SilverSneakers at age 65. The fitness program built into the majority of Medicare plans nationwide has gotten millions of senior citizens off the couch and into fitness—and Leeper was no different.
“I became a gym rat at 65,” he says, except going to the gym really wasn’t his “thing.”
“I noticed people in the basketball area having fun. I wasn’t thrilled to be at the gym, so I thought I’d try it,” Leeper recalls. The fun emanating from the group was pickleball. A childhood tennis player who played through college, Leeper left sports altogether to live life, despite the tremendous enjoyment it gave him.
He signed up for the Skills & Drills program at the Apex Recreation Center in Arvada, CO, and took a few lessons. “It took some getting used to because the ball didn’t bounce like a tennis ball, but once I had that down, it was a piece of cake,” says Leeper. “I love the social aspect and competitiveness of pickleball and discovered we had outdoor courts, which were more appealing. I started having fun and have never looked back.”
Leeper became so enamored with the sport that he became an employee of Apex Center, where he teaches pickleball to others. Always dressed in neon, Leeper is easy to spot in a crowd, which is good because he’s the go-to guy if you want to learn more about the sport.
“I’m also the guy who has a trunk full of balls and paddles. I carry loaner paddles. I walk the courts once or twice a day looking for lost souls, explaining the game, getting paddles in their hands, to see if they enjoy it,” he explains. “I distribute cards with the rules on them and places to play. I explain the Skills & Drills aspect and tell them we have lessons twice a week at the center. New people always say, ‘These people look like they’re having lots of fun. What are they playing?’ And it just goes from there.”
In the Arvada area, pickleball’s popularity has grown so much in the past decade that the region went from having one place to play in 2010 to 74 places currently. Leeper’s twice-a-week classes enroll 20 to 25 people each session.
And that popularity is also why Leeper and other enthusiasts in the area have put together a pickleball fundraiser that’s become one of the most successful of its kind—the Pickleball for Heroes Tournament—an annual event to raise money for the Craig Hospital in Englewood that caters to veterans suffering from brain and spinal injuries.
In addition to Leeper’s ongoing donations and involvement in obtaining sponsorships for the annual tournament, he was the lucky charm this year as the Front Range Pickleball Club's winning entry in the HEAD Penn Sweepstakes. Thanks to him, the FRPC won $1,000 in HEAD Penn pickleball gear, which was donated to the online auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to benefit veterans at Craig Hospital.
Leeper got involved not only because he loves pickleball, but because he’s also a Naval Air veteran who served aboard an aircraft carrier during Vietnam. “I got reclassified 1A when I turned 19, and I didn’t want a gun,” he says. “So I got into supply. How do you serve your country and not shoot anybody or get shot at? Naval Air.”
Leeper admires Craig Hospital’s policy of never turning anyone away regardless of means. “It’s a big rehab hospital, and if you show up with an injury, they won’t turn you away as long as they have space, which is a wonderful thing,” he explains. “It’s well-known in the Rocky Mountain region as one of the top hospitals for traumatic brain injuries. The tournament supports that and has gotten pretty good participation throughout the region. We made it to the fifth year, which means we’re doing something right, and it’s nice to see the community support events that aren’t strictly for competition.”
Shauna Hilgers, a player and volunteer for the event, says she’s just one of many who know Leeper, but to everyone, he’s someone special. “He’s just one of these good guys you come across in life and his passion is pickleball,” she adds. “He’s a constant here at the outdoor complex of 24 courts. If you want to play and don’t have a partner, or you need help, Mike is the person you ask. He’s just that kind of guy.”Hilgers feels that one of Leeper’s biggest contributions, aside from the tireless work he puts in for the Pickleball for Heroes Tournament, has been to ensure that the sport is as inclusive as possible at Apex.“Mike’s really been a big part of that. We have people playing in wheelchairs, players in their 90s, as well as kids, all out here playing,” she says. “Recently, Mike had both knees replaced, which was a big challenge for him, and I wondered how he was going to handle that, and he’s out there teaching young people. That’s incredibly special. Here he is trying to recover from these knee replacements and when he can’t play himself, he’s channeling his efforts into these young people to teach them to play.”
Helping others is definitely something Leeper continues to do through the Pickleball for Heroes Tournament and through growing the sport locally.
Leeper says pickleball is not only growing on the courts and in recreational arenas in the region, but in the schools, bringing a younger demographic into the ranks that seems intent on playing for the long haul.
“We’re out there talking to gym teachers all the time. The kids go on break and we’ll meet up with the teachers and run them through the basics of the sport. Some embrace it, some don’t, but most find it’s a nice fill-in between football and basketball,” he says. And the seeds planted in the schools have increased enrollment on public courts.
“We’re seeing more and more kids on the courts, lots of teenagers and youngsters really enjoying it. It’s the future of pickleball. They have all the energy and skills. It’s wonderful to see,” adds Leeper. “When the lights go out at 10 p.m., you’ll hear a groan throughout the center. They don’t want to leave.”